A bust of Magellan sits alongside the strait that bears his name at Punta Arenas.
A bust of Magellan sits alongside the strait that bears his name at Punta Arenas. Jilll Worrall

Walk in Magellan's footsteps

WHEN Magellan sailed through the sinuous stretch of water that separates the South American continent from the vast island that is Tierra del Fuego in 1520, he became the first European to explore what was to become one of the most important shipping routes on the planet, linking the Pacific and Atlantic oceans.

Today, the strait that bears his name is not so crucial as it once was, thanks to the opening of the Panama Canal in 1914 but it still retains an air of mystique.

On a sharp autumn morning, with a breeze bearing with it a touch of ice from the inhospitable south but which only ruffles the sea's transparent waters, I can imagine the sails of his vessel catching the intense southern light, somewhere out there just beyond my line of sight.

There's a replica of his flagship, the Trinidad here in Punta Arenas, looking little bigger than a modern-day ocean-going yacht. It weighed only about 110 tonnes.

The sheer audacity and courage of those early sailors to tackle the unknown southern oceans in these tiny ships is breathtaking.

The Trinidad would fit comfortably several times inside the ship I'm on - the Via Australis, proudly Chilean made - which is bound for Ushaia in Argentina via the waters of Patagonia and, if we are lucky, Cape Horn.

While Magellan's crew had to bunk down in shifts in hammocks below decks, after most likely extracting maggots from the daily supply of ships' biscuits, we were ensconced in en suite cabins with large picture windows and the promise of four course meals with Chilean wines to match. I felt a bit guilty. A bit.

The land around Punta Arenas and the Magellan Straits, where Via Australis is now docked, no doubt being replenished with ingredients for cruising essentials such as pisco sours, was claimed by Chile in 1843, outmanoeuvring both the Argentineans and the French who were also keen to take possession of this highly strategic route linking the Atlantic and Pacific oceans.

Magellan is commemorated in Punta Arenas with an imposing statue in the city's main square. He stands one foot planted firmly on the barrel of a cannon, no doubt a reminder to earlier residents of the might of Spain.

Today he presides over a collection of market stalls that appear to coincide with the cruise ship visits, lord of all he surveys, which today includes the largest collection of penguin-related souvenirs I have ever seen and a dazzling array of knitwear starring gambolling alpacas.

With a few hours to spare before we are allowed on board and having purchased our share of penguin-related products (my husband suggests that the penguin cap, complete with beak and flippers, that I have bought for a small boy would be perfect on board ship for the day we visit the Magellanic Penguin colony...) we explore the rest of the town.

Punta Arenas has recently developed a promenade along the waterfront, complete with a new bust of Magellan and information panels on the local wildlife as well as a striking sculpture commemorating the region's first inhabitants - five tribal groups, almost all driven to extinction, or near oblivion.

Back in town is the Maritime Museum, which is dispersed among several upstairs rooms of the former naval headquarters.

Among the replica wheel room, signals room and model shops is a small movie theatre where the curator offers to show us a movie in English. It turns out to be remarkable archival footage of a sailing of the great cutter, the Peking, with narration added later by the man who had shot the movie, many decades earlier.

We watch the Peking pitching and rolling through tumultuous and mountainous seas around Cape Horn with some trepidation, it's possibly was not the best thing to view before our departure.

Outside the movie theatre were local pictorial records of the rescue of members of Ernest Shackleton's expedition following their epic, astounding rescue from Antarctica and the islands of South Georgia. Yet another reminder of the perils of the southern oceans, even if the prospect of us becoming trapped in the ice, or having to build our own getaway craft, were somewhat slim.

We fortified ourselves just in case, with the sharp, alcoholic zing of a lemony pisco sour in a dark panelled cafe near the port. Chaise lounges, upholstered chairs draped with fringed scarves provided a refuge from the cold as well as suitably elegant places from which to consume slabs of delicious gateaux that Chileans seem to produce to perfection.

It was time to embark - I'd imagined us strolling along the wharf alongside which were tied up a mix of deep sea fishing trawlers, Chilean Navy patrol vessels, pilot boats and small battered freighters. But it was not to be; by Chilean law we had to be transported the 100 metres or so by bus, something that clearly amused the fishermen and sundry others, watching from their decks. Admittedly most of them were not engaged in crusty marine activities like splicing ropes or swabbing decks, but instead to a man had ears glued to their cellphones or were tapping out text messages.

Our cabins located, we were instructed on how to don our lifejackets and introduced to the captain and his offices.

It was time to seat sail along the Magellan Strait then on to the Beagle Channel in the wake of Charles Darwin, and if the southern weather gods permitted, a landing on Cape Horn.

Just before darkness fell, the clouds that had been low on the horizon to the south lifted, unveiling spires and snowy flanks of the Darwin Mountains and one of the world's largest collections of glaciers - our destination in two days' time.

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